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How To Select A Good Dive Instructor

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Added Number 8!

Dear divers, I’m putting this together for the benefit of the many who had asked me ‘how would I know if someone is a good instructor or not?’  As most newbies have no idea where to start, or may have been referred to one by his/her friend who has done the course, take this as a guide for you and your non-diver friends to select the right instructor for your dive pursuits.

1) Always ask to see the instructor’s qualification card/credentials. You are placing your life in his/her hands, you better know for sure if the instructor in question is REALLY CERTIFIED & QUALIFIED, RENEWED & CURRENT with their respective training agencies and is AUTHORISED to conduct courses. If police can stop you on the road to demand to see your driver’s license when you are not a threat, why shouldn’t you exercise the same courtesy on someone you hardly know who will give you instructions to dive?

2) Find out how long your instructor has been diving, when he/she became certified as instructor & how many dives they have logged. Some instructors still keep physical logbooks that run into hundreds of pages but some have chosen to keep digital memory in their computers. It’s great to have new instructors teach you because they would be placing a great amount of care to your wellbeing & mastery of skills. It’s also great to have seasoned instructors teach you because every skill taught is almost effortless and without anxiety because of what’s ingrained into the instructor’s memory.

3) Be aware of team-teachers, your dive theory sessions, confined water (pool or beach) & open water (sea) sessions may be taught by different instructors and it’s imperative that you know each of them are QUALIFIED TO DO SO, not have divemasters-in-training put in your care (a common practice that’s against the standards for new divers). State your questions & preference when signing up for the course in a dive centre/resort. (For foreign instructors, check if they have work permit to operate in Malaysia because if anything happens & you want to proceed with a legal battle, you may not find him/her again. Having said this, there are a good number of dive instructors of foreign nationalities who have made Malaysia home and have  Malaysian spouses. They offer a wealth of knowledge that locals can’t so there are pros to it. Do your checks first). – This is not meant to be discriminatory but due to the liability issues, I need to state this out so please don’t get offended, my dear foreign peers!

4) Be aware of instructors who are already suspended/expelled from any dive training agencies. They may continue to teach but have other instructors SIGN OFF your certification card. Reasons for expulsion could be due to serious violation of standards and procedures, negligence & error, some leading to death of students. This is a malpractice that you should not accept. Be sure that your instructor FOLLOWS THE STANDARDS. Ask to see the standards for each level of dive course that you are embarking on, then you would know what are the skills required for you to master at each one.

5) Instructor’s reputation. If you have been referred to your instructor, chances are, he/she had been teaching well. You would still need to do your due diligence check of point 1 – 4 above. For example, a fierce ex-military instructor may be uttering mouthfull of profanities during your training so be prepared for it. A octo-instructor may have hands everywhere, just like an octopus so if you don’t like to be groped, state beforehand that you don’t like to be touched although, you must be aware that during water training sessions, there is a lot of contact between instructor and student. A worldly instructor is someone who has probably travelled the world to dive leisurely but lack the experience to teach in different kinds of environment. Be sure to ask ‘where has he/she taught before (which seas, as each geographical location has different sea conditions). (Though I have been diving in cold waters, I still get a shock each time I enter the water & I certainly would not want to teach in those kinds of temperatures.)

6) Find out your instructor’s knowledge of marine life & marine conservation. If anyone makes a living off the seas, that person ought to know a great deal about the ocean & its inhabitants. The passion towards preservation of marine life must be paramount in an instructor’s life and walk. What you are getting from an instructor is years of experience with encounters of marine life that would influence how you would interact in the water. If you get an instructor who pokes & prods animals or catches a Nemo to put inside his/her mask then releases it only to be preyed upon by a lizard fish, or teaches your to ride a turtle or break open a sea urchin, or worse, pulling a poor octopus out of its lair till it has to squirt ink in defence to run away, you are getting a rogue, unprofessional cowboy instructor who has no regard for all life forms. Avoid him/her. Be sure to ask around, ask your diver friends for recommendations and don’t be afraid to change instructors or appoint someone new to teach you. You are not bound to one with a lifetime contract.

7) Watch out for instructors who get high on drugs/weed/alcohol. The last thing you need is a mentally impaired instructor in the water. Watch out for dilated pupils in their eyes or drunken breath. Don’t be afraid to say no to his/her instructions to enter the water. If he/she passes out, you are not trained to lift him/save him/her & can be a liability to you.

8) Don’t go for the cheapest dive course. You pay peanuts, expect monkey service. Dive instructors assigned to you when you sign up at the dive expo would be those in training or worse, those who have yet to qualify to teach. Not all dive centres would do that but most who want to cut cost, would. A dive operation has costs to upkeep, equipment to maintain and staff to pay. If you pay peanuts, the effects will be passed down the line, you’d get untrained/lackadaisical crew, lousy service and have no avenues to complain because of the price you paid that came with no perks. When I learnt how to dive, I chose to learn from the best and paid a premium to get as much as I could out of someone who was encouraged to teach me. When you learn from the best, you would spot all those mistakes from people who didn’t acquire the skills when they ought to have learnt them in their course. You won’t know what the instructor didn’t teach you if you don’t even know what they are suppose to teach. Refer to point #4 on laying out the set of standards that you must learn before you earn your certification.

9) If an instructor tells you that you don’t need to know how to swim to be able to dive, please mark his/her name and report to the dive agencies. You MUST BE ABLE TO SWIM 200m WITHOUT SCUBA gear nonstop and tread water for 10mins. This is in the ISO Standards that reputable dive agencies are accredited with. You will spend 95% of the time in water so what makes you think you can save yourself should you get into trouble or get separated from your group? Can you fly? No? Then learn to swim first. The ocean can wait for you and so can your instructor. Don’t be so eager to be run before you learn to walk. Safety is of utmost importance. In 1999/2000, Oriental Queen liveaboard hit a rock and sunk, but the instructor on board was quick to alert everyone who was sleeping to jump overboard and swim to shore. They did and was saved. What happens if you are in that same situation?

I hope the above serves as a guide for you to select your appropriate instructor. Do not be afraid to ask questions, even if you think they are stupid/silly questions because a good instructor will always make you understand what you are getting yourself into.

Tickling The Feather Star Open for Critters

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See the Clingfish and its pattern?

Crinoids are what divers know as Feather Stars, sporting feathery arms that sway back and forth towards the centre of the body. One of the easiest subjects to photograph, crinoids are prehistoric animals in the class of echinoderms with male and female species found clinging onto coral reef cliffs often asleep in the day or actively feeding at night. The challenge is to photograph the tenants that the Crinoid itself hosts. It’s important to note that no photograph is worth abusing the animal for so please handle your subjects with care as you would a live animal on land. Crinoids are somewhat sticky and brittle. You wouldn’t want to break any of their arms off in your quest to shoot the shrimp within so keep your buoyancy neutral and coax the star to do a grand opening for you. I will teach you how.

After witnessing so many dive guides using their swizzle sticks to roughly ‘part the arms’ of the Crinoid to show divers what it holds within, I felt compelled to write this article to educate the many of you who might follow the bad habit of disturbing nature for your pictures. I practice a minimal disturbance to no disturbances in all my shots. They are never manipulated, nor had my subjects tossed in mid water to get them flaring, fearful or angry and I implore all of you to nurture good habits. The ability to boast of your shots is in the way you photograph them, not how the shot was obtained with manipulation. When you understand marine animal behaviour, you will get your incredible shots. Having spent the last 17 years teaching and 12 years of photographing underwater, I am moving towards educating the diver of the habits that you should possess to encounter your subjects.

What you need in your gear:-
1) Dive equipment of course.
2) Carabiners/loops/holsters to streamline your dangling hoses (SPG/Octopus/reels/SMBs)
3) LED torch
4) Dive computer to record depth and time you see the animal to relocate it next time.
5) No gloves unless you are diving in 15? waters
6) Hood to keep your hair tucked away from curious octopuses
7) Any camera housed in respective cases
8) Marine life guide books

Pre-dive preparation:-
1) Clean your hands after you use sunblock
2) Secure all gadgets with lanyard in your pockets.
3) Identify the subject you want to shoot.
4) Decide with buddy how much time you want to spend on each subject and if you find your target, be considerate to allow your buddy to take shots as well.

It’s not what camera you have but your knowledge of marine life that would get you nearer to the animal. By knowing what your subject lives on and feeds on, you have already increased your chances of finding it. By knowing your reef, you would have access to the inhabitants if you know what feeds on what and when.

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The Shrimp also took on the colours and pattern of this Crinoid, Oxycomanthus Bennetti.


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Close-up crop of the shrimp.

The basis of not touching anything in your dive education has been the point of contention in dive circles as we see dive guides competing with one another to find elusive critters with their sticks/pointers and completely lifting the animal out of the sand even though it’s meant to be camouflaged. I found it deeply offensive and I usually stop following the guide to find my own interaction with critters when I am not the one guiding the trip. When marine scientists collect specimens for research, they can’t avoid touching. We are not scientists neither are we collecting any specimens but we want to document them and there would be some degree of touching (hence rule number 1 in pre-dive preparation is to have clean hands) but not to the point of harassing the animal.

Not all crinoids have critters within. There are several species that host them. One of my favourites is the Oxycomanthus bennetti. 9 out 10 animals that I find have ‘tenants’ within them! On this particular one, I found 3 different types of critters! They all form a symbiotic relationship with the host and even adapt to its colours and patterns. Two Clingfish, a shrimp and a crab (not displayed) were darting about as I got closer.

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There are 2 Clingfish in the picture and a shrimp. Can you spot them?

How do you get a Feather Star to open up its multiple arms for you? You only need to tap the spine of the arms gently & softly. As you begin tapping, be mindful that your neoprene suit doesn’t touch any of the brittle feathers or you might end up ripping the poor little thing apart. By tapping with your finger pads softly, it will begin to spread out. Your camera settings would have to be ready for the shot as you might only get one or two shots of the critters within. Set your focusing to Spot and metering to Centre-weighted. Crinoid will stay ‘open’ for you if it feels tickled in all its arms as long as you avoid touching the cilia (feathers). I use a drink stirrer with a ball tip to coax the critter (shrimp/crab/clingfish) into view from the opposite side carefully without touching the Crinoid. Once I get about 4 or 5 shots or a video if the subject is actively moving, mission is accomplished & I move on to other subjects on the reef. Minimal touching and absolutely no disturbance to the Crinoid. It will soon curl up to get back to sleep when it senses no threat.

For more on marine life and nature documentation, follow Pummkinography on Facebook or follow Pummkin on her trips!

Onboard Komodo Dancer – Learning Human Behaviour – Day 3 & 4

Dinners were always served in style. Sit down with a glass of wine as the first course is served by Rizal, who tirelessly wait on us. A purpose-built massive wooden table that acts as an emergency exit from the cabins below, had the capacity to fit 16 divers comfortably, 17 divers cosily. Captain Kassim set sail on the 2nd night towards Sumbawa islands & that’s when the real adventure had begun.

Sumbawa & Komodo islands seem to harbour some monstrous sized reef life and their pelagics are ginormous. Giant Trevallies are gigantic, Titan Triggerfish titanic, gargantuan Gorgonians that can wrap you twice over. The Napoleon Wrasse waltzes into schools declaring itself the emperor of the reef and Giant Groupers (Epinephelus fuscoguttatus) prance the neighbourhood without a trace, giving away its camouflage only when it moved. I was many a time, frightened by one in close proximity when I hovered to take pictures over the colourful terrain. The more vibrant cousin, the Coronation Trout (Variola louti), was more visible as it changes colours upon entering & leaving the reef, the prime reason for my decision to take more videos.

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By this time, everyone except Team Russia (language barrier), was warming up to one another around meal times as food had always been the centrepiece of conversations in Asian communities. Free access to the soda fridge meant I get to be sugar-powered by Coke after a nitrogen-loaded gawking session underwater. Again the swollen moon made everything explode, not sure if they got excited but I sure did when I caught the courtship ritual of the Trumpetfish at Padang Bai. Could it be that we would get to witness the spontaneous spawning of the reef at this time of the year? It’s hard to contain my joy…..

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Anticipating the view of the recently erupted Sangeang volcano that sent a 19km plume of ashcloud into the sky, eager beavers like us (Team China & Team Malaysia) continued to check our location with the map & GPS to see how far off we were & if there was a possibility to get near. The Captain expressed that he was not going to take the risk as molten lava can be seen miles away in the following nights. We were told to get a glimpse of it when we moved closer to Komodo.

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Team Austria had to be the walking pharmacy and most medically-equipped couple ever. On the first few days, they kindly whipped out a magic bottle of eardrops that dry out people’s ears as one member of Team Everything-Is-Wrong had gotten an ear infection. Very soon, Team Austria took out some Voltaren pills for one member of Team USA who had gotten a sprained ankle from an injury before she went onboard. She was also my lovely roommate! Her enthusiasm for muck dives was unquenchable as she voraciously searched the guidebooks after each dive for the things she had found.

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By that time, I was getting to know everyone except one aloof member of Team China who doesn’t speak English & required his diving buddy to interpret dive briefs to him. A man of few words, he was exceptionally expressive underwater, gesticulating to his awesome interpreter buddy who happened to be an incredible photographer. I think I like him already! We can sign language! And so it was that I would speak Cantonese to him & he would speak Mandarin to me……..bliss!

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If You Missed Reef Rescuers, Fret Not!

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Did you get to watch it? Wasn’t that a great documentary about the clean-up at the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park organised by Astro Kasih? Organising a clean-up of the ocean is a monumental task as I recall the number of clean-up projects I’ve been involved with in the past. Check out my introduction about Astro Kasih’s Reef Rescuers here: http://pitch.pummkin.net/?p=3675. Oceans get littered with unwanted debris, many become mistaken for food by birds, turtles & other sea life causing premature deaths from choking. A plastic bag can be mistaken as jellyfish, one of turtles’ favourite foods. Apart from being a hazard to sea creatures, plastic bags & other debris an choke reefs by blocking sunlight that facilitates photosynthesis in the symbiotic algae living in the corals.

Really, you should make it a point to catch this documentary to be better informed marine-enthusiast & contribute to a better world. The record-breaking effort will be shown at these times below:

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Repeats on Discovery Channel (Astro Ch 551)

Friday 31st May at 1pm

Sunday 2nd June at 5pm

Tuesday 4th June at 7pm

Wednesday 5th June 12am

Wednesday 5th June 1pm

Repeats on Discovery HD World (Astro Ch 571)

Friday 31st May at 1pm

Sunday 2nd June at 5pm

Remember, if you have any ideas or suggestions for the Astro Kasih team, share your thoughts on their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/astrokasihmalaysia.

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Congratulations to everyone who is enjoying a new GoPro camera courtesy of Astro Kasih!